On Sept. 30, Indonesia and the European Union entered into a historic agreement to protect Indonesia’s forests from illegal logging by guaranteeing that only legally harvested timber products will be exported from Indonesia to the EU.
Now, an international human rights group is saying the agreement does not go far enough to curb illegal logging linked to human rights abuses.
“The EU-Indonesia timber trade agreement should help combat illegal logging, but there is still a long road ahead before either side can claim to trade only in legal timber,” Joe Saunders, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement to the media.
Under the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), all timber exported from Indonesia to the EU must be certified by Indonesia’s timber legality certification system (SVLK) to prove that it was harvested legally. But, according to Human Rights Watch, these certificates do not ensure that the timber was harvested without violating the rights of local communities.
In particular, the certificates do not show whether companies asked permission or provided adequate compensation to local communities for the right to log the land where they operate.
This raises serious questions about the agreement, since the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) — a new law that went into effect in March prohibiting the trade in illegal timber products — does require legal timber to be harvested in a way that respects community land tenure rights.
“The obvious question is, if it has to be legal, legal according to what laws?” Emily Harwell, a consultant with Natural Capital Advisors and the author of the HRW study, told the Jakarta Globe on Tuesday.
Once the agreement is fully implemented, companies can use legality certificates to satisfy “due diligence” requirements under the EU rules, meaning that if wood products are certified by Indonesia, companies importing timber to the EU will not need to take additional steps to ensure that these products comply with EU law.
Under the current certification requirements, Harwell said, that poses a problem.
“If the SVLK certificates are meant to be used to satisfy the legality requirement, it’s going to miss respect for third party rights, respect for community rights. Which is not going to be in compliance with the EUTR,” Harwell said.
“If they want to comply with the EUTR they are going to have to address that,” she added.
Land conflicts linked to logging and plantation concessions occur frequently in Indonesia, a problem that has long been exacerbated by a lack of legal recognition of community land rights inside state forests. Under Indonesia’s 1999 forestry law, land zoned as forest was owned by the state, regardless of whether or not local communities held previous claims to the area.
In May, the Constitutional Court ruled that this was unconstitutional and that customary lands should not be classified as state forests. However, the Forestry Ministry has so far remained largely silent on when or how this ruling will be implemented.
Civil society monitors
While land rights could pose a major challenge to implementing the agreement, other parts of the VPA have been heralded as key steps forward in improving governance in Indonesia’s forest industry. Civil society groups played a major role in designing the VPA – a process that took six years and involved EU and Indonesian officials, NGOs and the private sector.
“Today’s signature of the FLEGT [Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade] agreement is an important step to improve forest governance and law enforcement in Indonesia,” Greenpeace forest campaigner Bustar Maitar said in a statement on Sept. 30 following the agreement.
In particular, Bustar highlighted the role of the independent forest monitor network (JPIK), a civil society grouping that will play an official role in the SVLK auditing process.
Greenpeace also stressed the need for continued reform.
“The signature of the agreement should not be seen as an end point, but rather as a stepping-stone,” it said in the statement. “There is still much work to be done if Indonesia’s timber legality standard (SVLK) and system are to be credible.”
Harwell also praised the inclusion of a formal role for civil society. “This is a good thing because they are independent of either the government or the business that’s being audited,” Harwell said.
But, she added, with thousands of forestry companies that are going to need these certificates, relying on civil society groups to guarantee the process goes smoothly is insufficient.
“It’s just not going to be possible for them to conduct audits of all those certificates and the auditing process.”
Long road ahead?
While the agreement has already been signed, it still needs to be ratified by both the European Parliament and Indonesia’s House of Representatives. And even once it is ratified, the law will not immediately go into effect.
According to an EU press release issued in September after the agreement was signed, the legality licensing scheme will only become fully operational when both Indonesia and the EU believe “all the necessary preparations have been made.”
This means it may still be some time before SVLK certificates can be used to prove Indonesian timber complies with EU law.
Earlier this year, the European Forest Institute helped carry out an independent evaluation of the SVLK, jointly commissioned by the EU and Indonesia. The EU requires all countries with which it enters into timber legality agreements to undergo evaluations of their auditing systems.
The results of this evaluation have not yet been made public, but officials from both the EU and Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry are working on action plans to address any problems that may have been raised.
“Earlier this year an interim report by our joint assessment team came up with a number of recommendations for improvements,” Colin Crooks, deputy head of the European Union delegation to Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam and Asean, told the Globe in an e-mail on Wednesday.
“We are now working with the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry to agree an action plan to address these recommendations,” he said.